There is no such thing as private (or online) communion

I have already addressed the question of online communion here. Garry Williams has also answered that same question here. Whilst we were meeting exclusively online, the question of whether we could take communion together – even though we weren’t meeting – warranted an answer. The answer I gave (similarly the answer given by Garry Williams) was that gathering, physically meeting, is essential to the act of communion. So, whilst we were online only, we determined there could be no communion.

But since then, we have started having hybrid services. That is, a number of people physically meeting at church whilst another group of people stay home and live streaming. Most the people who are staying home want to meet with us but they aren’t able due to age, illness or some other impediment to their coming. Given that we are having communion for those people who are in the room, can those who are not part of the physical gathering join in with communion at home?

In short, the answer is no.

The reality of communion is that you cannot have it without physically gathering. It is ontologically impossible to have communion apart from the physical gathering of the local church. Of course, you can have a piece of bread and a thimble full of wine at home if you like while you watch along. But doing that is no more having communion than my kicking a ball between two jumpers in the local park is me scoring in the World Cup Final. It might look and feel like the same basic elements, but the reality is that certain essential ingredients are missing to make it whatever we are claiming.

Bobby Jamieson puts it this way:

The Lord’s Supper can’t be carried out when the church is scattered. That’s because the physical act of gathering is essential, not incidental, to the ordinance. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers five times to the fact that they celebrate the Lord’s Supper when they all come together as a church, as one assembly meeting in one place at one time (e.g., “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you,” 1 Cor. 11:18; cf. vv. 17, 20, 33, 34).

He goes on:

Consider 1 Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The Lord’s Supper enacts the church’s unity. It consummates the church’s oneness. It gathers up the many who partake of the same elements together, in the same place, and makes them one. (So if baptism binds the one to the many, the Lord’s Supper makes the many one.) So to make the Lord’s Supper into something other than a meal of the whole church, sitting down together in the same room, is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper. So, it’s not the case that a virtually mediated, physically dispersed Lord’s Supper is less than optimal: it’s simply not the Lord’s Supper.

Similarly, communion is an act of the church affirming that those who partake are still walking with the Lord and in right standing with his people. But if many people are simply ‘having communion’ at home, how can the church affirm or deny anything about what they are doing? The church can neither give nor withhold communion from the one partaking at home in private. Nothing stops anybody affirming at home what the church would deny if they were in the room. This has an absolutely devastating effect on church discipline. We call the action of putting people out of the church excommunication because they are no longer invited to commune with us in communion. But those who merely take communion in the privacy of their own homes, unaffirmed by the church, can never be excommunicated. They are simply affirming themselves to be believers, in right standing, without any reference to the church at all. The church may know nothing about what they are doing and can do nothing to stop it. And if we affirm that private communion exists, we have no ground to do anything about it.

The Lord’s Supper, by its very nature, is supposed to be a family meal. By eating privately at home, we are divorcing it from its proper context. Paul insists to the Corinthians that they are to ‘wait for one another’ before they eat and drink. That instruction is entirely unnecessary if we are able to partake privately. Jonathan Leeman puts it like this:

Imagine saying your wedding vows without both spouses, or saying a team cheer all by yourself, or signing a business contract and not showing it to anyone. It’s just not what the vows, the cheer, and the contract are for. Even if there is an educative element in doing these things privately, it misses the point of the thing itself. The Lord’s Supper is a family meal.

The bottom line is that the Lord’s Supper is a communal meal to be taken in community. It is a family meal that is only the Lord’s Supper when it is received as part of a family gathering together in the same place at the same time. Mark Dever states:

It’s a wonderful thing to remember those who are separated from us, especially by disability or age. Prayers, Scripture reading, visits, and encouragements of many kinds properly express Christ’s love and ours for such a brother or sister. But what about “taking them the Lord’s Supper”? No, I don’t think you can serve the Lord’s Supper to one person alone any more than you can baptize an infant. It’s outside the definition of what the Lord Supper is by its very nature. In my mind, therefore, this question is comparable to the question of how we should think about baptizing someone unable to be baptized. In the case of both the person in the nursing home and the person who is unable to be baptized, their inability morally excuses them from the command. It’s the nature of the Lord’s Supper to be an expression of the unity of a congregation (1 Cor. 10:17). While all members of a congregation may never be present, the public meeting should be one of which all members are welcome and most members usually are present. Someone’s inability to assemble with the congregation—we trust then—will be accompanied by God’s special provision for them during their trials or extended absence.

We have a tendency in the Western church to individualise everything. Our corporate worship has increasingly become a question of my worship. The songs we sing and the prayers we pray are frequently seen as an ultimate expression of my relationship with God. The communal aspect is often downplayed.

As I commented here, Paul isn’t silent on the issue and in 1 Corinthians 11 insists the communal aspect in the physical gathering is specifically important. He insists the that private communion is inappropriate and wrong. As I asked in that article:

Why does the community setting matter? If all we are doing is remembering Jesus’ death personally and thinking back to when he will come again for me, why do we need to do that in the company of other people? Paul tells us not to do it privately but, if that’s all we’re doing, there really isn’t any reason for him to say so.

The answer is that communion is about more than my personal relationship with Jesus. It is not an individualistic meal, but a corporate one. It visibly constitutes God’s people, who are many, into one people. It is the church’s affirmation that those who partake are those who have trusted Christ and now belong to his people. It is the very meal that constitutes us together as his people. It is the meal that visibly expressed our unity together specifically through the sharing of one cup and the taking from one loaf.

As I noted here:

Given all that, it is difficult for us to symbolise any of those things while we are apart. Some would argue having individual communion cups – even if poured out of a larger, single receptacle – and pre-cut squares of bread undermines the symbolism well enough (an argument with which I have some sympathy, if I’m honest). How much less, then, can we symbolise those things have entirely separate emblems, in our separate homes, when we are not even meeting together. The symbol somewhat loses its potency.

Communion is only communion when it is communal. There is a reason that we don’t consider the taking of bread and wine at home privately to be the Lord’s Supper. It is a specific meal designed to constitute the church. It marks off Christians from the world around them (even the world sat in the same room as them). It is the meal that allows us to say, ‘there is a church’ rather than simply, ‘there are some Christians.’ But apart from the meeting together of believers who have enjoined themselves to one another, how can we meaningfully affirm those things?

It is for these reasons that Baptists have generally eschewed private communion. It is, they aver, not in any meaningful sense communion. If private communion is not appropriate, then nor is separate communion in the midst of a coronavirus-induced lock down. Just as we don’t want to claim that we are meeting via the internet – we are simply mitigating the unfortunate circumstances of not being able to meet as best we can – so we don’t want to claim that we are somehow taking communion whilst social distancing and isolating ourselves. In fact, such things are specifically contrary to communion.